Left in the Dust: The Digital Divide

In 2020, the threat of reduced health services to rural areas circulated local media like flies, another unfair yet inevitable cost of living beyond the streets of concrete. For countryfolk, the concept of providing telehealth in regional hospitals rather than a local, on-call doctor was not only insulting but laughable; there’s an irony in putting lives in the hands of a technology which is characterised by unreliability. Now, in a post COVID-19 world, basic errands have moved to an online space, leaving rural-based Australians behind.


Beyond the haze of the Blue Mountains and past the hobby farms of Mudgee, the town of Bourke sits almost nine hours West of Sydney. It’s the town the Fisher family call home, despite their property being more than an hour away.


Isabella Fisher and her two younger siblings saw out their primary school years from their homestead, home-school being the most efficient form of education. For 13 years, they learned first-hand what being victim to the digital divide meant.


“We would sometimes be without the internet or computer for a couple of weeks depending on road conditions or tech support availability. It really impacted completing online lessons and activities,” Ms Fisher said.


In those times, the Fisher family relied on their landline to contact their teachers, but even that was on shaky foundations, Telstra servicemen being frequent visitors at their household.


Fifteen years later, the problems they faced in 2006 are still ongoing.


Youngest child Adelaide Fisher was due to sit her HSC trials from home, sent home from her classrooms and boarding school following the COVID-19 pandemic. The day before, the Fisher family lost connection with their internet and phone line. No mobile coverage is a given for them. Adelaide’s Year 12 exams were reliant on the arrival of Telstra.


The Fisher family’s experience isn’t unique in Western NSW, nor any rural or remote setting across Australia.


The disparity in connectivity between the regions and their metro counterpart isn’t beyond the consideration of the federal and state government, with various initiatives in place to reduce the divide.


While in theory, projects like the Mobile Black Spot Program and Regional Connectivity Program offer expensive but effective fixes, the reality has produced a stark difference.


The government’s Mobile Blackspot Program was a shiny new initiative offering mobile towers in areas across Australia that have no access to mobile coverage. Since its implementation in 2015, over 1,200 ‘towers’ have been deployed across the country, accompanied by more than an $875 million price tag.


The locality of Kickabil, located 30 minutes outside NSW regional centre Dubbo, was one of the sites that received infrastructure to conquer a lack of overall connectivity. The mobile tower that was promised, however, looked nothing like what was received.


Karen Wilson of ‘Woodlea’ lives on one of the nearest properties to the infrastructure.


“We got what they call a Telstra small cell booster. They’re designed to boost existing mobile signals in town,” Mrs Wilson said.


The booster was a lacklustre alternative to a mobile tower, installed in area with no reception and more than five kilometres from the nearest home, rendering its reach redundant.


“We’re very disappointed that they’re saying that they’ve ticked the boxes, but no one has really benefited,” Mrs Wilson said.


In an era where work, education and social lives exist online, the connectivity across rural areas has had detrimental impacts on people’s lives and businesses.


Coonamble’s Deputy Mayor Bill Fisher runs both a farm and transport business. Running both businesses from his home has become virtually impossible, often finding himself missing out on trucking jobs due to being uncontactable.


“We’ve got virtually nothing here. My son, who lives 5km away, put in a booster but when 4G became 5G it stopped working,” Mr Fisher said.


Inevitably, access to internet has become more than a matter of location, but of socioeconomic status. Telstra, being the predominant mobile service provider for regional areas, offers mobile signal boosters at around $1000, an unattainable cost for most people.


The same applies to internet, with most landholders living outside of the town perimeter needing to install satellites to access the internet.


Even with the bells and whistles, money can only take one so far, with most internet providers limiting the amount of internet (in gigabyte of data) that users can purchase each month. While $80 in urban areas such as Newcastle will leave residents with unlimited data, $90 will leave rural residents with as much as 90GB. Granted, they’re also paying for an additional 160GB to use in ‘off-peak hours’, data they can only access between 1am and 7am.


The limited data simply isn’t enough to account for the students and employees who were destined to learn and work remotely, often using hefty quantities of internet to stream resources and video conference with teachers and teams.


According to the Regional Institute of Australia (RIA), only 13 per cent of internet users in the region said their internet speed was sufficient for online studies and remote work.


Teachers reported stories of their homebound students climbing mountains to reach phone reception, simply to be able to attend a class.


Still, the world moves on, and there is an expectation that everyone should be able to keep up.


These days, a lack of phone reception is so much more detrimental than being unable to call a friend or scroll through social media. For most business and banking activities that are done online – which is particularly prominent in areas of fewer services – simply signing on requires two-factor authentication, which sends a code via text message. Without mobile service, locals are simply unable to continue.


“As a farmer you learn to live with what you’ve got,” Bill Fisher said.


For him, that means relying on landlines to stay in touch socially and professionally. Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of mobile phones has led to a neglect in landline maintenance, and locals are under the impression that their way of communication will inevitably be phased out.


In 2018, Mr Fisher’s neighbour accidentally ripped up a phone line with a tractor. Their connection was out for six weeks, only to be reconnected when he reached out to the Telecommunications Ombudsman.


“I have no issues with the landline network not being properly maintained providing we’ve got a good alternative service, but we’re stuck in the 1700s here. When it rains, there’s no way of communicating at all,” Mr Fisher said.


He’s referring to an occurrence that is commonplace for residents that live out of town, where any storm could leave a house without a landline for weeks.


Earlier this year, the whole town of Coonamble saw their internet and mobile reception disconnected over a matter of days. Businesses that were still recovering from years of drought lost important income, unable to access even their EFTPOS machines.


Already bearing the brunt of what regional living can bring, including a lack of services and the continuous waves of natural disasters, there is simply no capacity to take on yet another disconnection from the outside.


The rural population is more diverse than they are given credit for. While some have found their fortunes in opals, or are heirs to million-dollar stations, some get by on the skin of their teeth. There is an undeniable socioeconomic divide that warrants attention.


However, what unites the rich and the poor out West is the publicly shared sentiment that their calls are merely an echo when they reach the city. Perhaps a more reliable phone line would make their voices a little clearer.